Lower college tuition starts with the Texas Legislature

Photo by Shilad Sen

I agree with Texas lawmakers saying we must rein in college tuition costs borne by students. However, too many blame universities, ignoring the major contributor to student costs: legislators who deregulated tuition, then underfunded universities.

If lawmakers want to reduce tuition, we must first look to ourselves.

Historically, Texas struggled to keep up with increasing higher education costs. Tuition and fees at Texas' 38 academic institutions climbed 239 percent between 1993 and now, according to an analysis of Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board data provided to my office by the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), an Austin think tank.

But since then, the state has cut funding. Per-student general revenue funding declined 6 percent between 1993 and deregulation in 2003. Sure, lawmakers gave universities a modest 8.8 percent increase this biennium, but the fact remains, overall funding declined 27 percent since deregulation. According to CPPP, in 1993 students spent $0.33 on tuition and fees for every $1 the state spent. By 2015, students spent $1.63 for every state dollar.

An argument could be made that universities have actually done a better job controlling costs. A 2015 Texas Tribune analysis found only nine universities raised tuition faster than pre-deregulation.

Before deregulation, families could rightly hold lawmakers accountable. Now, lawmakers are in the enviable political position of shifting blame for any tuition increase to unelected university boards.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also under-funded financial aid programs. Our two largest need-based grant programs, TEXAS and Texas Educational Opportunity, saw increases last session but not enough to meet demand, CPPP reports. Lawmakers appropriated no new money to work-study, reduced funding for Top 10 Percent scholarships, phased out zero-interest B-On-Time loans and almost gutted Hazlewood tuition waivers for veterans and dependents.

Further, eliminating the mandatory tuition set-aside that helps fund financial aid would likely take away more opportunity for low- and middle-income kids than it would add in tuition reduction.

Still, our expectations for universities continue to increase. The state set a goal for 60 percent of 25-34 year olds to have some postsecondary certification by 2030. We're only about halfway to that goal. The legislature also wants to elevate several universities to tier one status, and the governor has made recruiting world-renowned faculty a priority.

Well, it takes money to attract top faculty. It also takes money to ensure students complete college, increase course offerings, lower student/teacher ratios, enhance academic and career services and provide financial aid not covered by the state.

Plus, there are simply some costs beyond universities' control, like utilities, health care and competitive salaries to retain faculty.

We can't expect universities to make these big lifts while also covering budget shortfalls caused by dwindling state support.

To be clear, I don’t believe all university spending decisions are right and prudent. Rather, I join a growing chorus of voices calling for tuition re-regulation. Universities should make their case for tuition increases in the budget-writing process just like other state agencies, and the buck should stop with elected lawmakers.

I'm encouraged that the governor takes this issue seriously, creating a tri-agency taskforce to study college affordability. I hope universities bring innovative solutions to the taskforce — and stress the need for greater state investment.

As elected officials, our instinct can't be to trim education to the bone — and it certainly can't be to prioritize tax cuts over education services. From public schools to community colleges to universities, we need a first-class education system, not only as a social good in and of itself but also as an investment that secures Texas' place in the global economy. Texas higher education should be the capstone of a world-class system.

If we fail to make this investment and tuition costs still price low- and middle-income students out of higher education, we lawmakers will have failed our students and should be held accountable.

José Rodríguez

State senator, D-El Paso